In Greece, the preparations for Lent get off to a colourful start. On the last Sunday before Lent everyone takes part in their local town carnival and the next day, Clean Monday, they go out into the countryside and fly kites.
In Tyrnavos, however, Lent starts differently. The inhabitants of this small Thessalian town do not fly kites, but huge penis-shaped balloons.
The balloons are not the only provocation. On the Sunday and on Clean Monday, Tyrnavos resounds to the Phallus Festival.
Carnival masks and rites in Tyrnavos are much different from those in the other parts of Greece
In the town at that time of year, you would be hard put to find any object which hasn't got a distinctive phallic shape. Bakeries sell graphic loaves of bread. Manufacturers of the famous local tsipouro offer their liquor in ceramic mugs and bottles with the same bodily outlines. Confectioners have already prepared enormous quantities of lollipops in all shades of bright pink, electric blue and blinding green. You can guess what shape they are. Vendors have piled their stalls with all kinds of phallic objects, most of them cheap Madein- China stuff. You can find everything from a pair of glasses with a penis instead of a nose to phallic-shaped bottle openers.
The characteristic tsipouro glasses are not just souvenirs
The Phallus Festival involves a series of rituals. The official ceremony consists of open-air performances of local folk songs. Those who speak Greek will recognise words which could be defined as obscene, to put it mildly.
The informal festivities are rather more fun, and not only because many of the revellers in the streets are also singing smutty songs. Groups of men adorned with ceramic phalluses roam around Tyrnavos. They elect a so-called chief – or arhibouranioti – and honour him by crowning him with a penis.
Preparing the bourani soup
Masked men circulate among the tables of the taverns – during the carnival in Tyrnavos you have to queue to get into a restaurant or a café – spending time with anybody willing to buy them a drink of tsipouro or ouzo. They perform bawdy pantomimes, usually inviting the ladies at the table to join in them.
Lollipops are all-time favourites
The ritual which brings together all the visitors to the festival, no matter their age, sex or nationality, is the cooking of the spinach soup, or bourania, simmering in a huge cauldron under the watchful gaze of several elderly gentlemen with naughty smiles on their faces. Everyone who passes by must stop and stir the soup with a long wooden ladle of a particular shape, take a sip of soup straight from the ladle and then drink a shot of tsipouro from a ceramic phallic-shaped tumbler. After this ashes are smeared on the faces of the guests as a sign that they have undergone this procedure.
Next to the cauldron of bourania is something else which attracts flocks of laughing festivalgoers – the rocking throne in the shape of a phallus. Usually 'ridden' by grinning representatives of the male sex from 5 to 105 years old, the occasional woman consents to try it out.
The obscene Tyrnavos carnival is a descendant of the older fertility rituals of the ancient Greeks
The mass participation of women in the outrageous carnival in Tyrnavos is a comparatively recent phenomenon. Local people say that, up to the Second World War, the festival was exclusively a male preserve. Women stayed at home behind drawn curtains and only the boldest of them dared to peep out and see their fathers, husbands and sons having fun in such a Dionysian way.
Today many visitors come to the carnival with their children and without any obvious embarrassment buy them one of those lollipops.
The Greek Orthodox Church definitely disapproves of the carnival in Tyrnavos. Every year senior clergy try to ban the festivities, but to no avail. For one thing, the carnival is too much fun and, more importantly, it is older than Christianity itself.
The festival of the penis in Tyrnavos stems from one of the oldest documented celebrations of the rebirth of nature – the Dionysian festivities. The merry processions of inebriated maenads and sileni are frequent themes in Baroque art, but the celebrations in Antiquity were much more flamboyant.
Women are among the most enthusiastic participants, something their grandmothers couldn't even dream of
Ironically, in the beginning they were reserved for women. The Days of Dionysus were perhaps the only days of the year when Greek women left their homes for reasons other than going to the market or to the town fountain. They threw off their clothes, let down their tresses and ran madly to some nearby grove or meadow. There, in an ecstatic trance, which they believed had been sent by Dionysus, they sang, drank and danced. They waved thyrsae in their hands – long rods with a cone at the end, which anthropologists believe actually symbolised penises. Sometimes the trance of the maenads became so intense that they might tear apart with their bare hands an animal or even a human being passing by.
According to one of the theories about the death of Orpheus, the mythological singer met his demise under similar circumstances. On his way to the temple of the god of light, Apollo, Orpheus stumbled upon maenads who called on him to demonstrate his respect for Dionysus, the patron of their dark primal ecstasy. Orpheus refused and the maenads killed him with their bare hands.
Like many other pagan festivities, the carnival in Tyrnavos survived but in a modified form after Christianity became the official religion in these regions. Some would say that the modern festival is a meek and mild version of the Dionysian rituals, which is no doubt true, but on the other hand the only unpleasant consequence of this festival is the inevitable headache on Tuesday, from imbibing too much of the local tsipouro while singing dirty songs on Clean Monday.
- In 2011 the carnival in Tyrnavos was on 6-7 March. In 2012 it will be held on 4-5 March.
- Should you take your children? It's entirely up to you. The carnival in Tyrnavos is outrageous but the atmosphere is extremely friendly.
- The men who stir the bourania in the cauldron often amicably force passers-by to take part in the ritual, but if you are not in the mood to drink tsipouro from a tumbler in the form of a penis in front of a crowd of grinning spectators, you don't have to do it. Just keep a reasonable distance from the cauldron.
- At the time of the carnival it can be difficult to find accommodation. The best option is the nearby town of Larissa.
- Tyrnavos is also famous for something much less controversial – its production of excellent tsipouro, ouzo, wine and cheese.